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Elections are for politicians not priests

Church must understand its place in India's political matrix

Elections are for politicians not priests
John Dayal, New Delhi

April 29, 2014

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Judging from the newspaper headlines in recent weeks, the Church seems to have rattled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right wing Hindu nationalist party that most commentators have tipped to sweep general elections now under way in the country. 

Such influence may well be news to many, especially within the Church, since Christians comprise a mere 2.3 percent of the population and are not generally a significant factor in electoral politics outside of small pockets in southern and northeastern India and in Goa to the west.

The BJP is accustomed to a silent Church and a supine Christian leadership. In Gujarat, the home state of the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the Christian community has endured the mortification of seeing some of its top leaders – the Catholic bishops and a few others being notable exceptions – pandering to Modi and, by default, his political agenda.

Christians are a micro-community in Gujarat and have little impact on elections aside from a seat in the tribal region of the Dangs, which saw the burning of more than two dozen churches during Christmas in 1998.

Even in Kerala, home to an ancient Christianity, there have been Church leaders who broke with the common weal and expressed admiration for Modi, who has been accused by Muslims and a significant number of Hindu groups of complicity in the massacre of Muslims in his state in 2002.

Modi’s candidature, and the micro-management of his party’s election campaign by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the hyper-nationalist votary of a militant Hinduism, has deeply polarized the already pungent and hate-filled political debate.

The most recent provocation for the BJP was an email by Dr Frazer Mascarenhas, the Jesuit principal of Mumbai’s prestigious St Xavier’s College – perhaps one of the 10 best educational institutions of higher learning in the country with a rich tradition of freely discussing ideas, ideologies and social paradigms and offering a platform for social movements to express their points of view.

This was especially so in the years following the massacre of Muslims in Mumbai in 1992-93, a period that saw the emergence of popular discourse against the nexus of politics and religion, and what in India has come to be called communalism – a philosophy ranged against religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

In his email, Dr Mascarenhas questioned the premise of the 'development model' of Gujarat, which is the backbone of the BJP’s and Modi’s election platform.

Despite grand claims, Gujarat still ranks near the bottom in social indices, including child and women’s issues. Other states have done much better.

Gujarat has also not been able to shed the stigma of its anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002 and the ghettoization of Muslims in the state capital and elsewhere, which earned Modi national opprobrium and the denial of a visa to travel to the United States.

Dr Mascarenhas said “the Human Development Index indicators and the cultural polarization of the population show that Gujarat has had a terrible experience in the last 10 years”.

He also pointed to the travails of Catholic institutions in Gujarat and quoted Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s praise for national policies initiated by the federal government for the welfare of the poor. He did not name political parties, but he did exhort his students to choose wisely during national elections.

The BJP has lodged a formal complaint with the Election Commission and party spokespersons have said the principal – they referred to him as a Catholic priest and not as an academic – had violated the election code and had politicized the educational institution.

Others have also criticized Dr Mascarenhas for not elaborating the sins of the Congress Party to make his critique more balanced between contending political parties.

But many more have supported him, and in my view, quite correctly. He certainly has not transgressed the election code, and while perhaps he could have also criticized the corruption of the Congress regime – not that the BJP-controlled states have been free from corruption – he has been well within his right as a teacher to encourage students to debate the issues in the election before casting their vote. 

The issue in Goa more sharply arraigns the BJP against the Church. Goa’s Christians constitute 27 percent of its population and have a say in the election of two members to the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of parliament.

The Church has possibly made a mess of its electoral intervention in the past. Its campaign against corruption, and silence on communalism, in a previous election saw the rout of the Congress government, which was undeniably corrupt. But this also meant BJP coming to power in the state, led by Manohar Parrikar, whose subsequent actions exposed him as favoring just his own community and party.

Parrikar has since then sought to mollify Christians, and has included some Catholics in his cabinet. The state however is still mired in corruption, with a growing nexus between the mining sector and government.

In an official communication in recent weeks, Goa Archbishop Philip Neri issued a circular asking people to pray for a secular government. The diocesan Council for Social Justice and Peace lashed out at Modi for promoting a personality-oriented politics, and said communal and corporate elements had infiltrated India’s secular spirit.

There are questions that the Church in India has to resolve as to the extent it will intervene in the election discourse and the campaign process. There are no good precedents. India is not a secular democracy in the Western sense. There is no constitutional separation between church and state because India does not have a state religion, though Hinduism, as the majority religion, has a significant impact on national popular culture and symbolism.

The government formally maintains an “equidistance” from all religions, but often falters in this promise. Even the launching of navy warships is done in Hindu religious tradition. The Hindu religious establishment is politically very active. Various religious groups have extended their support to the BJP and the candidature of Modi.

Several seers, among them the Yoga Guru Ram Dev, are campaigning aggressively for Modi. The Muslim establishment is equally active. Various Muslim religious leaders have issued statements supporting or opposing political parties, and many of them have campaigned personally, and some have sponsored candidate. Several Muslim political parties are also contesting the elections.  

Victims of repeated incidents of religious violence, the Muslims fear the rise of communal politics and militant Hinduism, called Hindutva. Justifying their electoral involvement, and the intensity of their feelings, they bemoan that the West does not see or understand the threat that Hindutva poses to India, and in fact to world peace.

The strengthening of secularism is important for the Church. And the threat of a militant Hindutva coming to power by default is as much a threat to the Christian religious minority as it is to the Muslims, and to the greater idea of a secular India.

But the Christian community is perhaps more vulnerable because of its demographic reality as a micro-minority. This puts the leadership under great stress.

The way out perhaps is for the establishment to understand its role in this political matrix. I do not think the Church should participate in electoral politics. This should be left to the lay faithful as citizens of the country with inherent rights and duties to be a part of the democratic process.

Bishops and clergy have an important role as watchdogs, if not guardians, on issues of morality. Poverty is a moral issue. So is the dignity of the human person. This means that the Church has a role in setting the pace for a debate on development issues, on the rights of Dalits and tribals, and the dignity of women, the sanctity of the girl child, and the threat that nuclear build-up in the subcontinent poses to peace.

But it should keep its counsel when the election process has begun. They could surely exhort people to take part in the elections, and choose wisely. But election campaigns are for political parties, and for people's groups, not for bishops.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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